Thursday, June 21, 2012

Firing the Lawn Service - After a Year

Mowing your own lawn not only saves you money, you end up with a better looking lawn.

We fired our lawn service last year.  Or should I say, they fired us.  We were not happy with their service, as all they did (as most lawn services do) is run around a huge zero-radius mower over the grass, and then weed-whack the edges and then use a noisy leaf blower to blow everything out to the curb.   The result is a huge cloud of dust that settles on everything, and when you have a screened-in porch, you spend more time cleaning the porch than you would have, mowing the lawn yourself.  In terms of labor-savings, it was a wash.

In addition, the heavy commercial-grade zero-radius lawnmower will literally tear the grass off your lawn, particularly in a drought.   Our grass is centipede grass, and it does not like heavy traffic.  The lawn service was slowly killing our lawn one mow at a time.  The leaf blowers will blow the topsoil into a cloud of sand in no time.   Our lawn looked like shit - with huge patches of dead grass, tire marks, and bare sand and soil in many places.

Moreover, the lawn service was not interested in the lawn, only making money mowing it.   It hardly was a full-service lawn service - few are.   And in terms of "yard maintenance" they were not interested in really making the yard look good, just mowing the lawn as fast as possible and then leaving.   So our lawn was never fertilized and the plants were never cut back or trimmed.

And the cost of this?   Anywhere from $800 to $1200 a year.   That is a lot of money, even for someone making $100,000 a year.   As I have explained before, if you make the vaunted six-figure salary, chances are, most of it is spoken for, leaving you with $10,000 of "disposable income".   $1200 is a big chunk of this - or would be equal to a raise of $10,000.

So we fired the lawn service.  Well, they fired us.  I asked them politely to stop mowing during the drought, as our lawn was basically dead and not growing, and all they were doing was creating a depression-era dust-bowl in our back yard.   The fellow got pissed and said "I can't mow your yard anymore!"

And that was the best thing that happened to us.

Now, to be sure, we've had to spend some money on equipment.  But over the last year, even with the cost of equipment factored in, we've saved at least $800 or so.
Lawn Mower:   $225
Electric Weed Trimmer:  $50
Fertilizer and Lime: $100
Hose: $20
Timers: $40
Sprinklers: $40
Total:  $475

Savings (at $1200 a year for lawn service): $725
Now of course, the lawn mower will likely last more than a year, as will the other equipment.   But the bottom line is, there are huge savings here and the lawn has never looked better.

As for the labor involved, it really is trivial.   I bought a mulching mower, that also had a side discharge attachment and a bagger.   At first, I tried to use the bagger, but that proved futile.   Every other pass on the lawn, I would have to shut the mower down, remove the bagger and then haul it to the end of the driveway and dump it in a pile.   It easily doubled or tripled the amount of time needed to mow the lawn.

I tried the side discharge chute next, and that was easier, but it tended to make clumps of dried grass that turned yellow on the lawn and looked like crap.   Finally, I put it in "mulch" mode and it was amazing.  It chopped the clippings so fine that you never saw them.   And given our thin soil (sand, mostly) it seems to me that taking clippings OFF the lawn was just accelerating the depletion.

The grass started growing back - not being pummeled by a 1,000-lb lawn mower (and lawn guy, combined) every other week.

We bought a cheap timer and some hose and ran a sprinkler once twice a day for a half hour five minutes.  The grass really started to grow, now.   And by the way, this is so much cheaper and easier to deal with than a built-in sprinkler system.   I had one in Virginia, and it was a constant battle of adjusting heads and replacing heads and dealing with the system breaking all the time.  My neighbor has one, and he is forever dicking with it, and his "sprinkler guy" is there so often, his truck has worn a rut in the driveway.

A simple oscillating sprinkler (the kind that sends out a huge jet of water, back and forth, mounted on a lawn spike), a few feet of hose, and you can cover an entire lawn.  Hide the hose behind some shrubs and put the sprinkler head in an inconspicuous location, and you're done.  As a bonus, you can move it around and change your watering pattern.   The timer sets it off once a day, so you don't have to remember to water or remember to shut it off.  A built-in sprinkler system can cost thousands to install (if you have to hire someone) and you are forever screwing around with it.   For a small lawn, why bother?

With regular watering, the lawn really started to take off.   And we borrowed a neighbor's spreader and added fertilizer and lime (the latter to counteract the pine needles) and things went into overdrive.    I am not a lawn-obsessive (or hope not to be) but keeping your house in good shape, including its "curb appeal" means it holds its value better.  It also is just more pleasant to have a home that looks presentable.

The yard service guys kept threatening to fertilize, but never seemed to get around to giving me a price quote.  They didn't want the work, frankly, they just wanted to mow... and mow... and mow...

After several months, I bought an electric string-line trimmer on Amazon.  It works well for the occasional trimming.  I don't use it (and don't have to use it) every time I mow.   With the yard guys, they used it constantly, creating more dust than anything else (when the only tool you have is a hammer..... every problem looks like a nail!).

Mowing the lawn myself gave me more time to look at the plantings and do some trimming and pruning.  The "Yard Service" guys never did that, as it was too time-consuming.  Again, the name of the game for them is mow, mow, mow.  But there is more -far more - to maintaining a lawn than mere mowing.  As a result, over time, the plantings became overgrown and disorderly.  Poison ivy vines started taking over the trees and shrubs.  "I ain't touchin' that!" was the only thing our "yard service" man would say.

So, a year later, I have saved $800 and the whole yard looks better.  The physical effort on my part has not been all that great, and frankly, it is an opportunity to get some exercise - which all Americans need more of.

And again, the savings are really more than a mere $800 a year.  If we assume the equipment lasts five years, even with the cost of fertilizer every year, you are looking at a savings of over $5000.  Five Thousand Dollars.  That is a lot of money (and thanks to Quickbooks, I can tell you that I paid the lawn service $4,308.95, over the previous five years, to destroy my lawn.)

And to earn that much money would cost far more - probably close to $10,000 in pre-tax income.  As I noted in another post, labor is taxed - except the labor you do for yourself.   And in terms of disposable income, ten grand could be the equivalent of a hundred grand.

We still use a "yard guy" to mow the lawn while we are on vacation.   So that does end up costing about $120 or so.  But that is 1/10th of what we spent before.

And I have to say, this is not my first experience with a lawn service - and they are all about the same.   They try to mow as many lawns, as quickly as possible, to make as much money as possible.  They are not really interested in how your lawn looks, only checking another box off on their sheet and hauling bags of clippings to the curb to show you they "did something".  They end up destroying far more than they improve - running over sprinkler heads, wrecking flower beds, girdling trees with line-trimmers - you name it.

It is tempting to think you can "afford" a yard service, particularly when all of your neighbors use one.  And the twisted logic of "saving time" so you can work more at the office, makes no sense at all (the time saved is more likely to be used watching television, trust me).

All I can say is, this is one of the smartest moves I have made in the last few years.  I am much happier without the lawn service in my life!